central america

Crime, Violence Driving Migration from Central America: Reports

Several new reports highlight crime and violence as key factors driving large numbers of Central American citizens to migrate to the United States, suggesting current US efforts aimed at deterring migration may be misplaced…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

El Salvador Opposition Proposes Back-to-the-Future Security Plan

The Salvadoran news website La Página reported yesterday that the opposition ARENA party plans to introduce a bill to deploy some 10,000 military reservists in 22 of the country’s most violent cities. The proposal is likely an attempt to politicize the increasing violence in El Salvador in the wake of a tenuous gang-government truce forged in 2012 that seems to have come undone.

El Salvador has registered more than 3,000 murders this year, already a higher figure than the total of about 2,500 observed last year when the truce – perhaps deceptively – appeared to  be holding. According to the proposed law, the military would take over security operations in especially violent locales until preventative plans, including community-based policing initiatives, could be implemented.

El Salvador has experimented with an alternative to the “mano-dura” policies suggested by the ARENA bill. Starting in 2011 in Santa Ana with support from the U.S. State Department, the country began developing community policing models focused on taking proactive measures to prevent and deter crime and to target law enforcement resources more efficiently, rather than pursuing a scattershot “catch-and-release” policy. After his inauguration earlier this year, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said he wanted to expand such non-traditional citizen security programs nationally.

ARENA lost El Salvador’s presidential election earlier this year by a very thin margin, running on a platform promising an iron-fisted crackdown on crime and fear-mongering about the radical leftist background of its FMLN opponent, current President Sanchez Ceren. Although the party’s new proposal to militarize citizen security in El Salvador is unlikely to pass the FMLN-controlled congress, it does serve as a bit of red meat for ARENA’s conservative base in light of upcoming legislative and municipal elections scheduled for March 2015.

Misael Mejía, a congressman from the governing FMLN party, voiced concerns that the proposed militarization of security operations could increase the already rising violence, citing the example of Mexico’s bloody “war on drugs” as a cautionary tale for El Salvador. Security Minister Benito Lara has similarly rejected the idea of declaring states of emergency that would allow the military to assume public security functions.

Police are meant to catch criminals. Militaries are meant to make war. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that militarized policing tactics tend to increase, rather than decrease, violence. In Latin America, crackdowns like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico have often driven weaker, less ruthless groups out of the black markets, reducing competition for already-powerful players.

This allows these groups to concentrate their resources on corrupting and intimidating police forces, politicians and the public. Mexico’s crackdown on the cartels, aided by billions of dollars in Merida Initiative funding, has not only failed to decrease the violence in the country, but may actually have contributed to the sharp increase in homicides and extortion seen in recent years.

The second effect that an increasingly militarized approach could have would be to further disperse the conflict. Many powerful criminal groups like MS-13 and Barrio 18 grew out of street gangs started in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s and maintain networks in the U.S. and Canada to this day. Migration, some of it fueled by crime and violence, may be further spreading the reach and influence of these gangs across regional borders.

While many top officials and respected commentators have argued otherwise,  a “new-and-improved” version of Plan Colombia or the Merida Initiative won’t solve Central America’s security problems. To a certain extent, such an initiative has already been implemented. Countries like El Salvador (and Guatemala and Honduras) don’t necessarily need more cops, judges and jails – they needs better-functioning institutions all around.

Three reasons “Plan Colombia” won’t work in Central America

General John Kelly, Commander of U.S. Southern Combatant Command, told an audience at the National Defense University on October 8 that Central American governments should seek to replicate “the miracle of Colombia” when it comes to security. Colombia is “a great example,” said Kelly, “of what can be done so long as a government and a people, along with some help from the United States” cooperate on security issues.

Kelly made similar comments in a recent interview with Military Times and in an interview with the Daily Mail, the four-star general warned of the potential for “mass migration into the U.S.” if the African Ebola epidemic were to somehow spread to Central America. “It’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,'” the general said, describing the hypothetical situation along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Gen. Kelly is not the only policy heavyweight to have fear-mongered about Central American refugees, and he is not the only one to have proposed Colombia’s experience as a model for Central America to follow. On both accounts, he has been joined by Dan Restrepo, currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and previously President Barack Obama’s top advisor on the Americas during his first term. The same can be said of former SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral James Stavridis.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his Guatemalan counterpart Otto Perez Molina have both called for the implementation of a”Plan Colombia” for Central America, hinting that increased assistance from the United States might enable them to ameliorate the politically-problematic flow of migrants through Mexico and into the United States.

There are a number of problems with the Colombia model, but below are the most important reasons why its application could have especially negative consequences for Central America – particularly in the violent “Northern Triangle” region comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:

1.) Central American countries have weaker institutions than Colombia. While Colombia’s civil conflict continues in tandem with ongoing peace negotiations, Central American countries signed peace accords ending their civil wars years ago. Nevertheless, post-conflict political institutions and security forces in Central America haven’t had fifty years to adapt to the soaring levels of violence seen in the region in recent years. In fact, although it is still the tenth-highest in the world, Colombia’s murder rate has been in steady decline for a decade.

2.) This weakness manifests itself in susceptibility to corruption and intimidation. The criminal underworld is alive and well in Colombia, though not in the same shape and form as it was during the initial years of Plan Colombia. Instead, the militarized crackdown on guerrillas and narco-traffickers drove many of these groups further underground, diffusing them into smaller and more widely disbursed networks and pushing them into new markets and geographic areas.

In fact, there is compelling evidence that Colombian criminal organizations are using Central American “transportista” groups as middlemen in the trafficking of drugs from South to North. Transnational criminal organizations, often based in Mexico and Colombia provide the huge amounts of capital necessary to supply large amounts of illicit goods and to pay off the police and political officials as well as any “sub-contractors.”

3.) Central America has a plan Colombia and it isn’t working. The essence of the “Plan Colombia” strategy is a heavy-handed, zero-tolerance approach to crime. The U.S. has provided more than half a billion dollars in military and police aid to Central America since 2009. That may not sound like much compared to the $7 billion investment made in Plan Colombia, but in both cases, the thrust of assistance efforts has been toward tactical and operational capacity rather than addressing the institutional weaknesses and corruption that lie at the root of the violence.

Breitbart’s awful article on Central American refugees

Usually, I don’t do this kind of post, but this article represented such an egregious trampling of journalistic principles that I thought I’d point it out. Here’s Breitbart’s lede:

An elite, law-enforcement sensitive El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) intel report from July 7, 2014 was leaked to Breitbart Texas and reveals that homicide rates in Central America suggest violence is likely not the primary cause of the surge of thousands of unaccompanied minors and incomplete family units illegally entering the United States.

So, the highest homicide rates in the world are not driving emigration from Central America. Sounds plausible. Please explain.

The leaked EPIC report discusses the motivational factors of the illegal immigrants in their choice to migrate to the United States:

(U//LES) In late May, the U.S. Border Patrol interviewed unaccompanied children (UAC) and migrant families apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley. Of the 230 total migrants interviewed, 219 cited the primary reason for migrating to the United States was the perception of U.S. immigration laws granting free passes or permisos to UAC and adult female OTMs traveling with minors. Migrants indicated that knowledge of permisos was widespread across Central America due to word of mouth, local, and international media messaging—prompting many to depart for the United States within 30 days of becoming aware of these perceived benefits, according to the same reporting.

Undoubtedly, a desire to reunify with family members and hopes of being granted asylum play a role in driving migration. But surely, if news of “permisos” had spread throughout Central America, so has the news about the extreme perils of the journey north and the oftentimes inhumane treatment of child migrants apprehended after entering the US. Would migrants really take these immense risks (many make multiple attempts) if the situation in their home countries weren’t absolute hellish?

But, the report essentially admits EPIC have no idea what they’re talking about:

Although EPIC lacks reliable reporting of Central American newspapers broadcasting the perceived benefits of U.S. immigration policies, several U.S. media outlets since June 2014 have identified Central American newspapers that have enticed minors to travel to the United States.

What does that even mean? EPIC “lack reliable reporting” on publicly-available Central American media reports? Media reports that are apparently broadcast so widely and regularly that their assertions about “free passes and permisos” are common knowledge among the general public in these countries, including children who are often too frightened of police and gang violence to even go to school?

Another thing Breitbart obscures is the fact that EPIC is a government agency. According to their report, “EPIC is a widely respected intelligence analysis group and was initially staffed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).” The report does mention that the government agencies “currently represented at” EPIC include the whole alphabet soup of law enforcement, including:

…Drug Enforcement Administration; Department of Homeland Security; Customs & Border Protection; Immigration & Customs Enforcement; U.S. Coast Guard; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Marshals Service; Department of Transportation; Internal Revenue Service; U.S. Department of the Interior; National Geospatial–Intelligence Agency; U.S. Department of Defense/IC; Joint Task Force–North; Joint Interagency Task Force–South; Texas Department of Public Safety; Texas Air National Guard; National Guard Counter Narcotics Bureau; Department of State; Bureau of Indian Affairs; Union Pacific Railroad Police; Kansas City Southern Railroad Police; El Paso Police Department; and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

In other words, this report was produced by an organization whose members and employees have a stake in continuing the drug war and increasing the militarization of the border. Unsurprisingly, their conclusion is that the problem is not a result of failed drug war policies that simply push violent criminals around the region without actually solving underlying issues.

According to EPIC, no real recalibration of US policies is necessary. We just need to make the kids more afraid of coming to the border than they are of staying in their crime- and violence-ravaged home countries. Or something:

EPIC assesses that UAC flow to the border will remain elevated until migrants’ misperceptions about US immigration benefits are changed. We further judge that this process could take the remainder of 2014 given the time needed for bi-lateral coordination efforts—such as information and enforcement campaigns in Mexico and Central America—to take hold.

Most independent research on the causes of migration from Central America, as well as a plethora of anecdotal reports, suggest that violence is one of the prime factors behind unaccompanied child migration. It’s quite disappointing (though not entirely surprising) that Breitbart would basically reprint misleading government propaganda regarding this issue.